The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
It’s award season again, so instead of having an excuse to put a lovely new “2014” in the headings, I’m stuck with shitty old “2013”. Anyway, I went and caught Walter Mitty the other day, just so I could review a film still in cinemas. I don’t have anything else to say here. Call it unprofessional if you must, but I don’t get paid and answer to no-one, so therefore am not a professional. So suck it.
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, shockingly enough, revolves around the eponymous Walter (Ben Stiller). Walt is a chronic daydreamer who comes to the realisation he’s done nothing with his life whilst creating an online dating profile to flirt with co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). He works in the photography department at Life Magazine, which is undergoing a shifting focus onto online content and a massive downsizing overseen by corporate douche Ted (Adam Scott). Mitty receives a package from famed photographer and globetrotter Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) which is missing an important negative intended to be the cover for the final printed issue of the magazine. With his job in jeopardy, Walter decides to try and track down O’Connell to get the all-important photo. Stiller stars and directs and he does a bang-up job of both. As the lead, he’s great and way more understated than I thought him capable of. I’m so used to seeing him in cartoony over-the-top roles, it’s nice to see him take things down several hundred gears. Kristen Wiig is lovely in a role that despite some careful touches here and there still basically boils down to the prize to be won. Adam Scott gives us a severely unlikable suited exec to hate and does well with it. Whenever he was on screen, I was trying to remember who he reminded me of, but it finally clicked. He’s like Ellis from Die Hard. Same beard, same oily jokes, same punchability. Sean Penn is basically Sean Penn with a wig. Make of that what you will. Patton Oswalt shows up too and is nowhere near as funny or as likable as he is in other things, basically because his character is there for only one insidious reason. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Walter Mitty is aiming straight for the kind of audiences that like their films surreal and life-affirming. Think Garden State and others of its ilk. It’s the kind of film with a guitar-strummy soundtrack and many shots of our main character staring into the middle distance. SLoWM often has Mitty daydreaming insane scenarios, ranging from saying what he really wants to say in a social situation to a super-powered street battle, similar to Family Guy’s overblown “Chicken Fight” scenes. They’re fun bits and extremely well done (although there’s a riff on Curious Case of Benjamin Button that clunks like a bitch). The film is about self-discovery and enjoying life whilst you can, which is what Walter does, vicariously living Sean O’Connell’s life whilst tracking him across different countries. It’s all beautifully shot and the soundtrack complements things nicely. It isn’t the deepest movie out there and doesn’t have anything to say about the human condition or anything like that. It’s more akin to a motivational poster hung on an office wall. You know those posters that have a picture of a mountain and some saccharine sentiment underneath about “never giving up” or similar? Yeah, that’s pretty much this film. That’s not to say it’s bad. There’s certainly a place for that. It just doesn’t do much for me.
The films looks fantastic. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is top-notch stuff and features some achingly beautiful landscapes. The script however, is a bit clumsy for my tastes. There are some lovely ideas here, but they require a defter touch. So Mitty’s job at Life Magazine is threatened by a move to internet journalism. The film has a few things to say about this, the hard-working people it’s making redundant and where society’s headed with this attitude. Fair enough. Thing is, when you have a huge sign saying “Life Online” and shots of all the interesting furniture (and workers) being removed, it’s too much and the message is overpowered by how fucking obvious the film’s being. I understand that most people need stuff spelling out for them but you can get your point across with a light push here and there, without having to resort to using a neon sledgehammer. The film isn’t quite so heavy handed with other components. During Walter’s travels, we’re made to question whether or not what we’re seeing is real or whether it’s just an extended fantasy of his. That’s genuinely clever stuff. His backstory involving his dad dying and his relationship with his mother and sister are also played well. He genuinely feels like a guy that just shut down after he lost his father. It’s realistic and heartfelt.
Let’s take a minute to talk about product placement. Personally, I don’t mind it that much when it’s done unobtrusively. Best example I can think of is Bond swigging a Heineken in Skyfall. The film doesn’t linger on the bottle and there are no shots of Daniel Craig taking a sip and then looking at the bottle with an impressed expression. It’s just there. Corporate logos are part of daily life and we’re used to seeing them. I actually find it more distracting when someone drinks a generic “Cola” or a bottle simply labelled “Beer”. Done right, product placement can add some realism and validity to a character’s world. Anyway, back to my point. Walter Mitty is a corporate whore.
A lot has been made of the product placement in this film and I really tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t. This is shameless stuff. Walter starts making an eHARMONY® profile at the start and is called by Todd (Oswalt) from eHarmony® at various points during the film. The pizza chain PAPA JOHN’S® also makes an appearance, ending up being a major plot point. Life Magazine doesn’t really count as it did shut down, although it still exists in some form, although the workers genuinely believing in the corporate motto sticks in the craw slightly. Also Walter goes to CINNABON® and eats a pastry, being prompted to talk about how good it is. There are tons more too, these are just the main offenders. Fuck, this is the worst I’ve ever seen. Obnoxious product placement will now be referred to as “doing a Mitty“. My line between tolerable and intolerable product placement is when there are specific lines of dialogue talking about the product. All of the named products/services above all have positive lines of dialogue in the script. Todd from eHarmony® talks about their “unique matching algorithm” and Walter says something like “Yeah, that’s why I like them.” I mean, Jesus. Have some goddamn dignity. The Transformers films weren’t this bad. The thing is, if this was Transformers, it wouldn’t matter so much because it’s a big, dumb, shiny advert of a film. In that particular case, they’re films based on TV show that was created for the sole purpose of selling toys. They’re like ultra adverts. Walter Mitty doesn’t have that excuse. Having all this “brand alignment” cheapens the overall sentiment of the film. If Walter’s finding himself and finally taking steps into livening up his life, why do we need garish logos accompanying it? It makes it very hard to buy into anything the film has to say because you can’t shake the feeling you’re being taken for a bit of a mug. You can argue that the film’s being ironic and making a point about big business, but I ain’t buying it. Money changed hands and script lines were changed to fit the sponsorship, I’m sure of it. Disgusting.
“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty really isn’t bad. It has some good solid performances and is genuinely heart-warming at times. It has a nice story to tell and does it admirably. It’s basically like the John Lewis Bear & Hare Christmas advert- undeniably charming and enjoyable on its own terms, but at the end of the day is basically just interested in sucking your wallet dry.